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Putting Arab verse on the global stage

Syrian-Canadian writer Ghada Al Atrash uses the words of noted poets 
as her means to change the distorted image the West has of the region

Image Credit: Supplied
Ghada Al Atrash says she only translates poems that touch her heart

When I am overcome with weakness, I bandage my heart with a woman’s patience in adversity. I bandage it with the upright posture of a Syrian woman who is not bent by bereavement, poverty, or displacement as she rises from the banquets of death and carries on shepherding life’s rituals.

I bandage my heart with the determination of that boy they hit with an electric stick on his only kidney until he urinated blood. Yet he returned and walked in the next demonstration.

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I bandage it with the steadiness of a child’s steps in the snow of a refugee camp, a child wearing a small black shoe on one foot and a large blue sandal on the other, wandering off and singing to butterflies flying in the sunny skies, butterflies and skies seen only by his eyes.

I bandage it with December’s frozen tree roots, trees that have sworn to blossom in March or April.

I bandage it with what was entrusted by our martyrs, with the conscience of the living, and with the image of a beautiful homeland envisioned by the eyes of the poor.

These are a few lines that keep returning to my mind, long after I finished reading a translated version of Syrian poet Najat Abdul Samad’s poem, When I am Overcome By Weakness.

Poignant and stark, every word brings alive in the reader’s mind the pain and anguish Samad’s fellow beings in Syria are going through as civil war rips the country apart.

That I could appreciate a Syrian poem sitting in the comfort of my home in a metropolis of south India was only possible due to the untiring efforts of Syrian-Canadian writer Ghada Al Atrash as a translator.

Al Atrash, who now resides in Cranbrook, British Columbia, organises poetry readings in her neighbourhood in an effort to spread Arabian arts and culture.

Accompanied by music, she first recites the original verses in Arabic and then follows it up with her translated version in English. The feedback, she says, has encouraged her to continue in this endeavour. For Al Atrash, poetry reading and recitation is a passion that dates back to her childhood days when her father, former Syrian Ambassador Dr Jabr Al Al Atrash, introduced her to verses.

“He would recite poems to me,” Al Atrash reminisced fondly.

This love for poetry continued at school in Syria where she studied until the age of 12 before her father migrated to America.

“At school in Syria I was expected to memorise poetry and recite it aloud in class. I do wish the same for my children here in the West, but things are taught differently,” rued this mother of three.

“Reciting poetry is certainly missing from the Western curriculum. Besides, as Arabs, we were exposed to poetry through music. Many of the mainstream songs are poems from well known authors including Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. So it was a common thing and easy too, to recite a poem from the beginning to end, often popular songs sung across the Arab world.”

Moving to Canada with her family early this year, Al Atrash came up with the idea of conducting poetry sessions.

“My identity is an amalgam of East and West, and with this I have taken on the cause and responsibility to fill in the almost total absence of Arab arts and culture in the West,” said Al Atrash, who holds a masters in English from the University of Oklahoma. Egging her ahead was another factor — the distorted image of Arabs by the western media.

“Unfortunately the western media has used prejudiced lenses, often equating Arabs with extremists and terrorists, providing a one-sided misrepresentation; but in reality Arabs also abhor religious extremism, terrorism, and violence.”

Quoting the late Palestinian American Professor of English, Edward Saeed, she continued, “It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”

Al Atrash believes that Arabs can clear this misrepresentation by the West by presenting their culture and art to a Western audience.

“I am one of many who have taken on this cause. And I have learnt that a poem or a piece of music can touch the deepest part of the heart when nothing else can. A poem penetrates barriers and boundaries and addresses the human soul, as it universalises human feelings.”

“The feedback has been very humbling for I have discovered that everyone, regardless of race and nationality, speaks and understands the universal language of poetry and music,” added this certified translator for Arabic to English by the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia.

“The tears of my audience speak more than words. I have noticed them sitting with eyes closed, absorbing every word and every note. It is precisely this image that drives me to share more of our rich Arab arts and culture.”

Every poem is treated differently with respect to the music that accompanies her recitation.

Talking about her selection of music, Al Atrash said, “For the recital of Youssef Abdul Samad’s poem, The Security Council, I chose Rodrigo’s Libertango, as this poem is very intense politically. I felt that every musical note embodies every letter of every word of the poem. It is all about what embodies the tone and words of the poems.”

As for selecting poems for translation, Al Atrash said, “A poem has to touch my heart. It has to speak to me. I have to feel the words in order to translate them. Words without feelings are like food without salt, they are tasteless.”

At other times, she may be inspired to write a poem stirred by an extreme emotional state of either happiness or sadness. Her poem, Selma, was inspired by her 15-year-old daughter Selma.

“That poem was written not by my hands but by a mother’s heart,” smiled Al Atrash.

Another poem, Red (See box) was sparked off by a photograph on Facebook of a Syrian family, showing the mother and her children soaked in their own blood and lying on the grey cement.

“My broken heart, aroused by painful images and tragic news of my homeland Syria, found way into verses.”

Al Atrash has brought out a book, So that the Poem Remains, a translated work of poems written by Arabic poet Youssef Abdul Samad.

“I began translating his poems one by one over e-mails,” she recalled. “Gradually it became a collection that I wanted to share with my Western readers. That’s how this book happened.”

What kind of challenges does she face while translating?

“Translating requires one to stay as faithful to the original as possible while delivering the text in a language that sounds smooth to the ears of the targeted audience,” explained Al Atrash.

“Translating poetry is not a literal translation. It is about delving deep into the poet’s world and narrating what was seen and more importantly, felt. There are dramatic differences between Arabic and English. It’s about translating cultures, traditions, idioms, gestures and ways of speaking. Sometimes Arabic can be too poetic to the Western ear, so I try to tame it a little. The Arabic language, like its culture, can be madly passionate and emotional about things and to me as an Arab, that is beautiful, but to my Western friends, it can be a little too much. So it’s also about understanding the psychology of 
cultures.”

Juggling between her family’s requirements and making time for reading and writing, Al Atrash’s heart continues to beat for her native land. “For me writing is a spiritual practice just as much as it is intellectual. It is also part of a cause that I hold in life,” says this proud Syrian.

Visit www.meaningwithinwords.com

Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.

RED

  • Black, olive, yellow, blue, and different shades of red
  • were the colours in a photo tossed around on Facebook today.
  • A dismal coal black (mixed with red) was the colour of his hair.
  • A pallid light olive (mixed with red) was the colour of his skin.
  • An ill queasy yellow (mixed with red) was the colour of his shirt.
  • A nauseating sick green (mixed with red) was the colour of the soccer ball on his shirt.
  • A washed-out faded blue (mixed with red) was the colour of his jeans.
  • There was no white,
  • only whiter shades of pale,
  • but no white.
  • And, the red...
  • A ravenous, unquenchable, and predatory red
  • was the colour of his splattered blood,
  • and the colour of his nearby mother’s blood,
  • and of his little brother, and tiny sister
  • — all four, next to one another,
  • mute like the grey cement on which they lay,
  • not in an embrace, but apart; all four drenched in red blood...
  • Red:
  • Wine of kings,
  • rubies of presidents’ wives,
  • greed,
  • shame,
  • slaughter,
  • massacres,
  • blood,
  • explosions,
  • fire,
  • sirens,
  • carnage,
  • death,
  • a martyr,
  • a poppy,
  • the heart of a mother,
  • a kiss to a beloved,
  • a rose next to a grave...
  • and Syria is red... 
 

Red

Black, olive, yellow, blue, and different shades of red

were the colours in a photo tossed around on Facebook today.

A dismal coal black (mixed with red) was the colour of his hair.

A pallid light olive (mixed with red) was the colour of his skin.

An ill queasy yellow (mixed with red) was the colour of his shirt.

A nauseating sick green (mixed with red) was the colour of the soccer ball on his shirt.

A washed-out faded blue (mixed with red) was the colour of his jeans.

There was no white,

only whiter shades of pale,

but no white.

And, the red...

A ravenous, unquenchable, and predatory red

was the colour of his splattered blood,

and the colour of his nearby mother’s blood,

and of his little brother, and tiny sister

— all four, next to one another,

mute like the grey cement on which they lay,

not in an embrace, but apart; all four drenched in red blood...

Red:

Wine of kings,

rubies of presidents’ wives,

greed,

shame,

slaughter,

massacres,

blood,

explosions,

fire,

sirens,

carnage,

death,

a martyr,

a poppy,

the heart of a mother,

a kiss to a beloved,

a rose next to a grave...

and Syria is red...

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